Review Summary: Once Upon a Time......There were Four bands with an ambition. An ambition to reign supreme over the world of heavy metal. Whence they came, Who they were, What they were going to achieve, How they were going to do it, Why they found it necessary, no one did not yet know. Their impact became big, and their power great. This... is their story.
The Rise & Fall of Thrash Metal: The Four Horsemen
The Four Horsemen. The Big Four of Thrash. We’ve all undoubtedly heard of them. Four American bands, formed in the early 80’s. Together, they created and popularized the thrash metal genre. Fast and aggressive, this spawned forth from a combination of influences from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and punk rock. It took the typical riffing, shredding and tempos from the NWOBHM, and the rawness and aggression from punk. One of its main purposes was to countermeasure the rising of glam/hair metal in America. Bands such as Bon Jovi
and Mötley Crüe
were topping the charts in the USA, but their success was not even thrash’s main concern. These bands were, according to them at least, blaspheming and commercializing what was once a pure genre. What key artists such as Black Sabbath
, Judas Priest
and Iron Maiden
had help to set up, was not to go to waste.
And there they came to fulfil that ambition. Anthrax
. Though each of them had a unique approach to the genre, and incorporated many different elements in each of their respective unique styles , their goal was the same. It is with good reason they are referred to as the Big Four, as they literally, though apart from each other, created the genre. All of them fell into eventual demise, some more than others, at some point, but their legacy had been set long ago.
Though all formed in the early 80’s, each of the Four spent a few years before finally finding perfection of style. And as if it was simply meant to be, all four of them recorded/released what is considered by many the peak in their discography in the year of 1986. In chronological order, these records are Master of Puppets
by Metallica, Reign in Blood
by Slayer, Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying?
by Megadeth, and Among the Living
by Anthrax. Seen as the cornerstones of thrash metal, they are essential to get to know what thrash metal was in fact all about.
Part I of IV: Master of Puppets, by Metallica
Metallica were formed in Los Angeles, California in early 1981. Drummer Lars Ulrich posted an advertisement in LA newspaper The Recycler
, stating simply he was looking for a band. James Hetfield, having previously played in a number of unstable and unknown bands, was introduced to the band as vocalist and rhythm guitarist. After finding their name in Metallica, the band’s initial composition was completed by lead guitarist Dave Mustaine and bassist Ron McGovney.
This would not last, however. When Metallica saw Cliff Burton play in his previous band Trauma
, they were so sure about his superiority to McGovney they decided to replace him. Mustaine would not last for too long either, being kicked out for drug and alcohol abuse, along with violent behaviour. Kirk Hammet of Exodus
quickly replaced him, and has remained with Metallica ever since. Mustaine, feeling angered and betrayed (for he felt Hammet was stealing the riffs he wrote), would continuously feud with Metallica.
When all tensions were settled, a now finally stable line-up went on to record three albums: The very raw and badly-produced debut Kill ‘Em All
in 1983, the slightly more refined but still under-produced Ride the Lightning
in 1984, and this in 1986: Master of Puppets
. The album was recorded in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1985, and released on March 3, 1986. It was not only the first of the famous 1986 albums, but also the most popular (though its popularity rose only in truly great amounts after the release of The Black Album
Master of Puppets
Master of Puppets’ Metallica was:
- James Alan Hetfield ~ Lead Vocals, Rhythm Guitar
- Kirk Lee Hammett ~ Lead Guitar
- Clifford Lee Burton ~ Bass Guitar, Backing Vocals
- Lars Ulrich ~ Drums
Artwork by Don Brautigam
The eventual success of MoP
in the musical, and especially heavy metal world, is stunning to say the least. Many critics have cited it as one of the finest metal albums ever released, and so have fans. The band repeats this opinion, seeing their third as their very best album ever.
So what makes Master of Puppets
all that attractive? In order to find that out, one would have to look further back, and to take in mind the environment that was all around at the time of release. Fans of classic heavy metal pioneered in Britain were getting bored with the all too often commercial approach America liked to take, and saw thrash metal as a salvation, as mentioned before. Rough, angry, and ranting against the rules and problems of society was a style of music a large crowd all easily identified with.
But it mustn’t be that easy a reason for MoP
’s enormous success, must it? After all, Metallica’s first two were also very much pioneering the thrash metal genre, with about the same approach as their third. Still, there are quite a few things that elevate Master of Puppets above its predecessors. The most important of these factors is focus. Focus to create an unified album. Not just a collection of thrashing about, no, but an album that felt as a complete experience. And this is exactly what Metallica achieved in 1986. Master covers just about every famous thrash topic, keeping the subject matter diverse, and yet making sure it all fits together. Addiction (Master of Puppets
), war (Disposable Heroes
) and religion (Leper Messiah
) jump out as most effective. While the lyrics are not the most poetic to come up with, they match the attitude of thrash metal completely. Or, better said, they are
the attitude of thrash metal. Detractors of the lyrics, describing them as dumb and/or uninspired, seem to forget that the way they were written is one of their strengths, and a key feature that contributed to the audience’s identification with thrash in the first place.
Structurally, Metallica seemed
to be ripping off their own ideas. Just compare Master of Puppets
to its predecessor Ride the Lightning
. Both contain fast-paced openers with an acoustic intro (Fight Fire With Fire/Battery
), 8 minute instrumental tracks towards the end (Call of Ktulu/Orion
), a ballad in the fourth spot (Fade to Black/Welcome Home
), and also the title tracks are among the longest offerings on both albums. The band must have liked the structure, otherwise they wouldn’t have copied it, but a much better production and more focused and unified song writing make for a largely superior second try, and arguably each of the comparable tracks has the winner on Master of Puppets
. If looked at carefully, the album is actually far more of an intelligent affair compared to Ride the Lightning
However positive all the above may be, Master of Puppets
has one undeniable flaw: the musicianship. It is not bad per se, but lack of variety is of more concern. The distorted, chunky riffs that form the backbone of every song are too often played in the same key, at the same pace, and continued for too long, making for a repetitive experience. Burton gets enough time to shine in these riffs, as his distorted bass sound is easily distinguished in the mix. Hammet, however, comes across as too uncreative and slightly unoriginal for a too great part of the album. With moments such as the melodic part of the title track, the more emotional guitar work on Welcome Home
, and solos such as the one on Disposable Heroes, he shows his chops like he should, but the problem is that he doesn’t show them enough. Also, the band tends to continue the same regular thrashing pattern for too long in a song, which may come across as rather bland. This is one thing which inevitably drags the album down. With addition of more originality and creativity in the song writing department, Master of Puppets
might well have been a masterpiece.
That doesn’t say every song sounds the same. If that would be true, the album would have been rather poor. The Thing That Should Not Be
, for instance, is often underappreciated for being too slow. Being slower is instead what makes it rather interesting instead. The build-up in the verses, both vocally and instrumentally, is very well-carried out, and definitely a highlight. Battery
and Damage, Inc.
manage to both open and close off the album with fiery madness, and Welcome Home
is a well-performed ballad with Hetfield attempting actual singing (and pulling it off, too) instead of the often angry shout that early Metallica and thrash in general are often associated with. The revered instrumental Orion
is also an essential piece. Although it also continues the same pattern for too long in parts like other tracks, it features more creativity and flows better than any of the others. Its lead/rhythm guitar interplay is more notable than on any other song , the bass work really stands out in a few places (fade-in at the beginning, plus a solo), and Ulrich’s overly simple drumming actually adds something to the track, especially in the beginning. This all makes for the musically most interesting piece on MoP
So HOW good does that make Master of Puppets
, adding that all up? It is, like the other 3 Big Thrash Albums, an excellent piece of work, thematically more unified than Metallica’s earlier work, and also much better produced. Although repetitive at times, the musicianship is still of enough quality to carry out the goal set by the album. You’ll have to properly see it in the environment it was released, and it will definitely make more sense to you, especially if it might have seemed rather average at first. Though one of the most influential albums of all time in (thrash) metal, (one of) the other three may just be more appealing, depending on your preference. Read, listen, and find out.
Master of Puppets
Welcome Home (Sanitarium)
Metallica were the first of the Four to fall into demise, at least concerning the style they helped to pioneer. The most talented bassist they would ever have died in a bus accident while on tour to promote the album. Their next and fourth album, ...And Justice for All
, would be hung down by unfocused and overlong song writing. What followed was Metallica’s dive into the mainstream with The Black Album
, a venture into a hard rock-ish style on Load
, and more unwanted experimentation on St. Anger
. Their recent album Death Magnetic
was hailed as a return to their thrash roots, but was, unsurprisingly, nowhere near early glories. What they achieved with Master of Puppets
, they would certainly never achieve again.
To be continued in Part II: Reign in Blood...